|Reason and Wonder
“I think I have a book in me, and I think that teaching this course might help me write it.”
It was the first day of spring semester 1999, and I had just uttered the statement above in front of a group of 20 honors students. The statement, as this website proves, was true. It was also incredibly naïve, as the 13-year gestation period of Reason and Wonder attests. Why did it take so long? Well, as they say in spiritual circles, it’s not the destination; it’s the journey.
I’m the product of a very rational dad—a physician—and a very intuitive and religious mom. I’m both—rational and intuitive—but the scientist and the poet have not always cohabitated easily within this one breast. And so, for the first half of my life, an inner conflict between reason and intuition played out by an inability to settle vocationally. To make a long story short, I flip-flopped back and forth between engineering and teaching. Not until 1986, at the age of 38, did I complete the PhD in applied mathematics that opened the door toward vocational integrity.
The struggle for personal integrity took a further leap on a Sunday morning a year later, when I awakened in a state of inexplicable anticipation. Setting pencil to paper, a poem flowed out. It was titled “Psalm of Resolution,” and it began with the lines:
Like flotsam have I ridden the breakers, Unable to chose the shelter of mother shore, Or the perils of father deep
The poem went on to paint the outlines of how my search for integrity would resolve itself; hence the title.
At about this time, I met John Yungblut. Through the mentorship of this remarkable elderly gentleman, I soon came to realize that what I thought to be a personal struggle is ubiquitous. Indeed, it is the quintessential struggle of the mystic, although at the time I had not an inkling of what a mystic is. John changed all that by introducing me to others, throughout the ages, who had successfully weathered similar struggles, as had he. In Finding God Within, John writes:
"For the mystic . . . the struggle for identity and integrity assumes epic, even cosmic proportions because it presents itself existentially as an intensely personal life-and-death struggle . . . It is as if the mystic’s integrity . . . is achieved because he has suffered, at least in imagination, a potential dichotomy that threatens to tear him to pieces." (Yungblut, 1979)
By the time I arrived at JMU in 1995, I had come to appreciate that the mystical struggle has both personal and societal components. In the Western world, it plays out in the animosity between science and religion.
HONORS 200D—“From Black Elk to Black Holes: Shaping a Myth for a New Millennium”—was therefore conceived as a vehicle for getting at the science/religion dichotomy while avoiding the potential minefield posed by traditional religious viewpoints. The premise of the course was to view the universe from vastly different perspectives—from a mythological perspective of Native Americans on the one hand and a modern scientific perspective on the other—and then to look for resonances between these seemingly disparate and possibly irreconcilable worldviews. There was no guarantee that a course so conceived could or would work, and in the early days and weeks of the course, I felt considerable trepidation, far out of my normal element as instructor of mathematics.
But a funny thing happened. Inadvertently, that naïve confession on the first day of classes had an unintended consequence. The students sensed that this was no ordinary course. We would be charting unfamiliar territory together.
The result was something quite extraordinary, something that in the words of one student “broke open a vast world of mystery and discovery.”
Thirteen years later that “vast world” has taken shape in Reason and Wonder, which I offer to the reader.
I am so grateful to JMU, a university with a heart, for allowing me to teach HON200D multiple times, and to the 140 honors students who have walked portions of the journey with me and taught me at least as much as I have taught them. It takes a community.